Planning the race
Whatever his/her level, a musher never decides last minute to participate in a race. He puts together his/her competition program a year earlier, maybe two.
The work of preparation leaves nothing to chance
As a matter of fact, being part of a race requires:
- to dispose of all information regarding the race (tracks, difference in altitude, length of the stages, access capacities, average temperatures),
- to select dogs (since, an 8 or 9 years old sled dog retires and gives way to another younger dog),
- to conceive the training program and to plan the training sessions,
- for those who have a career (and they represent the majority), to ask for vacation to their employers for the necessary time period,
- to look for « sponsors », these much talked-about supports without who a musher cannot manage to settle their dog team (unlike sailing or horse riding, we are not to the point yet where we would have to give or dogs sponsors’ names…fortunately!),
- to prepare the necessary trip, by truck or by plane according to the final destination.
A daily effort that cannot be disregarded
All this represents a huge amount of work, which is added to the daily care for the dogs (they eat, drink, relieve themselves, and must run every day).
It is considered that in order to prepare well a dog team for a big competition such as La Grande Odyssée, which is run with 14 dogs, it is necessary to care for three times more dogs… which is already over 40 dogs: those who are trained, the retired ones, and all the youngsters who require to be played with everyday to get used to human contact. Most mushers are also breeders, which lays down on them to manage reproduction in their kennel… but also to be there when the females give birth to their puppies. That means having a large kennel, well maintained, in which each dog feels as comfortable as possible.
But a race, as important as can be, does not fill up the whole year. That’s why the musher, depending on his/her means and his/her dog team quality, will work out a race program that will cover the whole winter time. When participating in long distance races, his/her aim will often be to do 3 races, in January, February and March. His/Her dogs ill then be able to rest for about a week after each race.
Predicting long trips disadvantages
Long distance trips are the main organization difficulty. For an Alaskan Musher, to come run in Europe is a nightmare! There is no plane flying directly from Anchorage or from Fairbanks toward any European city. Consequently the trip is 24h long. Dogs will change plane two or three times. Authorisation must be granded at each stop to go and care after the dogs… Long talks with the airline companies are required, because they do not like to transport so many dogs. A long and difficult work that requires good knowledge of rules from each country.
As we can see, planning a race is not as easy as it may seem. And behind all these wonderful dog teams, is another world that the public does not necessarily imagine.
The race equipment
Sleds, skates, harnesses
The sled, first of all, is every year lighter and technically improved. The time of the too heavy and too long Eskimos and Indians wood sleds, is over. Mushers now look for lighter, flexible and resistant sleds, something more « high-tech »! Carbon fibre and Kevlar have appeared. We have even seen the French athlete Nicolas Vanier start of the Yukon Quest with a sled conceived and produced for him by… Renault Formule 1!
The skates, which ensure a good slide, have also evolved. They can be waxed, just like skies; switchable skates are even more modern, mounted on small rails that the musher chooses depending on the snow quality.
Harnesses for dogs, originally leather made, are nowadays made in synthetic material, in order to limit friction on the dog’s skin. They are adapted to the dog’s size, and are scientifically researched by some veterinarians. A well conceived harness allows to spread the tractive effort originated by the « ligne de trait », and doing so to protect the dog’s knuckles, especially its shoulders and hips.
« Lignes de trait » and necklaces have also evolved to improve sled dogs’ protection from accidents, that can always happen. In case of entanglement between several dogs, necklaces automatically undo so that dog cannot strangle. The « Lignes de trait », are equipped with shock absorber systems that cancel any jolt in the dog team tractive effort; thanks to them, back and shoulders muscles are well protected.
Everything is essential
To all this is being added:
- bags placed on the sled in order to carry tired dogs, conceived to breathe while stopping the wind this way the dog being transported does not suffer from neither heat (their enemy) nor cold,
- the « snow anchors », that allow slowing down the dog team when the musher wants to stop, then are used as a sort of hand brake once the sled dog is stopped ; are now made from light composite materials that are stronger than steel.
- Coats that are sometimes put on dogs so they don’t get too cold when they stop running, after providing a big effort, but they also are useful when the blizzard blows in Alaska. They are often made with the same material as survival blankets and are mushers use them more and more.
- and of course, trucks where dogs are carried from one race to another and that are more and more sophisticated in order to provide each dog as much comfort as possible.
In the end, all these elements add up and represent for mushers an important investment, because they are all very expensive. They are the result of serious research, some techniques have even been borrowed from aeronautics! But it is quite impressive to see that all this is made to the benefit of the dog, its health, its comfort.